'Bug Mac' and lovely 'grub': food of the future

Dutch scientists are researching whether insects can replace animal meat as a source of protein.
A file picture shows a man eating an 'insect pizza' at a food festival in the Netherlands in 2009. Dutch scientists are doing groundbreaking research into insects replacing animal meat as a healthier, more environmentally friendly source of protein.

Dutch student Walinka van Tol inspects the worm protruding from a half-eaten chocolate praline she's holding, steels herself with a shrug, then pops it into her mouth.

"Tasty ... kind of nutty!" the 20-year-old assures her companions clutching an array of creepy crawly pastries at a seminar, which forecast that larvae and locusts will invade Western menus as the price of steak and chops skyrocket.

Van Tol and about 200 other tasters were for a group of Dutch scientists doing groundbreaking research into insects replacing animal meat as a healthier, more environmentally friendly source of protein.

"There will come a day when a Big Mac costs 120 euros ($163) and a Bug Mac 12 euros, when more people will eat insects than other meat," head researcher Arnold van Huis told a disbelieving audience at Wageningen University in the central Netherlands.

"The best way to start is to try it once," the entomologist insisted.

At break time, there is a sprint for the snack tables with a spread of Thai marinated grasshopper spring rolls, buffalo worm chocolate gnache, and a seemingly innocent pastry "just like a quiche lorraine, but with meal worms instead of bacon or ham", according to chef Henk van Gurp.

The snacks disappear quickly to the delight of the chef and organisers. But the university's head of entomology Marcel Dicke knows that changing Westerners' mindset will take more than disguising a worm in chocolate.

"The problem is here," he tells AFP, pointing at his head while examining an exhibition featuring a handful of the world's more than 1,200 edible including worms, gnats, wasps, termites and beetles.

Three species: meal worms, buffalo worms and grasshoppers, are cultivated by three farmers in the Netherlands for a small but growing group of adventurous foodies.

"People think it is something dirty. It generates a Fear Factor response," citing the reality series that tests competitors' toughness by feeding them live insects.

Dicke said Westerners had no choice but to shed their bug bias, with the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation predicting there will be nine billion people on the planet by 2050 and agricultural land already under pressure.

"We have to eat less meat or find an alternative," said Dicke, who claims to sit down to a family meal of insects on a regular basis.

Bugs are high in protein, low in fat and efficient to cultivate -- 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of feed yields six to eight kilograms of insect meat compared to one kilogram of beef, states the university's research.

Insects are abundant, produce less greenhouse gas and manure, and do not transfer any diseases, when eaten, that can mutate into a dangerous human form, say the researchers.

"The question really should be: 'Why do we NOT eat insects?," said Dicke, citing research that the average person unwittingly eats about 500 grams of bug particles a year anyway -- in strawberry jam, bread and other processed foods.

Lovely grubs ready for cooking in Bangkok
A Thai worker prepares grubs to cook in the kitchen of Insects Inter in Bangkok on 2002. Dutch scientists are doing groundbreaking research into insects replacing animal meat as a healthier, more environmentally friendly source of protein.

According to Van Huis, about 500 types of insects are eaten in Mexico, 250 in Africa and 180 in China and other parts of Asia -- mostly they are a delicacy.

One avid European convert is Marian Peters, secretary of the Dutch insect breeders association, Venik, who likes to snack on grasshoppers and refers to them as "the caviar of insects".

On a visit to an insect farm in Deurne in the south east Netherlands, she greedily peels the wings and legs off a freeze dried locust and crunches down with gusto.

"They are delicious stir fried with good oil, garlic and red pepper and served in a taco," said Peters.

The owner of the farm, Roland van de Ven, produces 1,200kg of meal worms a week of which "one or two percent" for human consumption, the rest as animal feed.

"When you see an insect, it is a barrier. I think people will come around if the insects are processed and not visible in food," he explains while running his fingers through a plastic tray teeming with worms -- one of hundreds stacked ceiling-high in refrigerated breeding rooms.

"It is harder to eat a pig you have seen on a spit than a store-bought steak. This is similar."

The farmer said human demand for his "mini-livestock" was growing slowly -- from 300 kilograms in 2008 to 900 kilograms last year.

For those who won't be swayed, there is hope for less grizzly alternative. Wageningen University is leading research into the viability of extracting insect protein for use in food products.

"We want to determine if we can texturise it to resemble meat, like they do with soy," said Peters, clutching a bag of pinkish powder -- protein taken from meal worms she hopes will one day be a common pizza ingredient.

Explore further

Replace cattle? Edible insects produce smaller quantities of greenhouse gases

(c) 2011 AFP

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User comments

Jan 23, 2011
Bugs? Yeah, but on a different scale. Most people alive
today will pro'bly end their day eating synthetic vat-food...

Just say "cheeze".


Jan 23, 2011
Six years ago I swore off animal protein. My food budget is lower, my cholesterol levels are healthier, my moods and blood sugar is more steady, and my conscience is happier. Why are we so attached to the idea of consuming other animals that we'd rather transition to insects? While I realize that special dietary needs may make going vegan difficult for some, the majority of the world's population could do quite well on a vegan diet. I have to laugh, otherwise I'd cry.

Jan 23, 2011
The image of worm and cockroach farms now haunts my dreams. Thanks, physorg.

Jan 23, 2011
"The question really should be: 'Why do we NOT eat insects?,.."

No, the real question is when you eat prepackaged foods, "What are you eating now?.."

"Don't ask, Don't tell, it's nothing new, so what the hell."
Corporate Philosophy

Jan 23, 2011
Uhh.. maybe. A distant maybe.

I think I'll go full vegan before I switch to bugs. I think most people would too.

Jan 23, 2011
We already eat thousands of insects ground up in our bread etc. But is lab-grown meat really so far off that we're going to be stuck eating bugs for a while?

I'm already vegetarian (due to my conscious) though, so I'm all for this, given that bugs don't experience physical and emotional pain the way animals do.

Jan 24, 2011
Why are we so attached to the idea of consuming other animals that we'd rather transition to insects?

Because meat is a more efficient way to obtain certain nutrients, it tastes good, and has the potential of turning inedible plant matter into food. By feeding some of your food to an animal, you transform your food into different kinds of nutrients, which is very useful if you can only grow e.g potato locally.

When you're eating a grasshopper, you are eating grass by proxy. The only problem of meat is that it tastes so good that we're producing it with feed farmed on land that would otherwise be suitable for growing human consumable foods.

The problem of plants is, that most of the easily grown ones are simply full of starches and sugars and not much else. To get a balanced diet, you need to import a lot of special items from places far away, because the local climate rarely supports all kinds of plants. This costs a lot and wastes energy, and pollutes.

Jan 24, 2011
And because most of the earth has these things called seasons, it's very difficult to get things like lettuce and red peppers in the middle of the winter. Things turn expensive rather quickly for foods that you can't store for months on end like you can store potato, corn, wheat, carrots...

With an energy crisis looming, imported/transported foods will become even more expensive and difficult to get in the times when you can't grow your own, which means that people still need some way to maintain a balanced diet and a balanced bank account.

Which means that people will still eat meat.

Jan 24, 2011
The thing that gets me is, when I eat steak, I am eating a hunk of muscle. When I eat a bug, I am eating exoskeleton, digestive system, eyes, reproductive organs, legs, etc. Sure, if we can process them like crabs(which are similar) and get JUST THE MUSCLE part, then yeah, I would eat insect meat. But I dont want to eat all that other crap that constitutes thier body! Can we even digest an exoskeleton? Wont it get stuck in my teeth like popcorn kernels do? Yuck! Protein = YES, Exoskeleton and Digestive Track = YUCK.

Jan 24, 2011
Yes, let us all eat bugs for protein
...and let us make jeans out of cotton
...and let us then make fuel from food crops
...as we drink alcohol to relax...and pray to god...

Jan 24, 2011
Insect farms are more common in parts of Africa. I've read they absorb chemicals like pesticides very easily though, a drawback.

Jan 26, 2011
Insects could be a good food source in the event of a global disaster. An asteroid strike, massive volcano or nuclear war could all trigger a nuclear winter. Lacking sunlight to grow crops limits our choices when it comes to food. Termites could be raised off the wood stored in forests and provide humanity with a food source until the skies cleared. I know this sounds very apocalyptic, but asteroid strikes and massive volcanoes have occurred in the past and will happen again.

Jan 27, 2011
Insects are easy to farm which solves many problems including the problem of pesticides. This can significantly decrease world hunger.

How this can be done? See my website: foodfactoryfoundation.org

"In many parts of the world insects are already popular as food. But the current method of harvesting (by hand in the wild) makes them expensive, susceptible for extinction, droughts and natural enemies. Furthermore, they are only available in significant quantities is specific seasons.

The idea of the FoodFactory is to design highly scalable factories where insects are grown, harvested and processed in an industrial way, making the process of making insect-based food cheap and controllable. As a result, food can be produced at such low costs, that even the poorest people can obtain enough food to survive, learn and work. Thus not just hunger, but also poverty, unemployment and environmental problems can be tackled."

Jan 31, 2011
If you cannot find a way to properly "package" or otherwise present insect "meat" to consumers, you won't even get the ecologically conscious on board to eat insect. Current markets are VERY good at pointing out how much the consumption process is about form and packaging rather then content.

Make bug steak look like pork steak even if it doesn't taste like it, and you MIGHT have a chance at making this remotely viable. Put a handful of bugs on a pizza, and you can pretty much guarantee bankruptcy within a few weeks.

Feb 01, 2011
Make bug steak look like pork steak even if it doesn't taste like it, and you MIGHT have a chance at making this remotely viable. Put a handful of bugs on a pizza, and you can pretty much guarantee bankruptcy within a few weeks.

When you mention bug steak and I think of lobster. They were once considered a poor mans food by my grandmothers generation. Now they are a delicacy. As far as bugs on a pizza, shrimp are arthropods too, just like spiders and scorpions.

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